/ 23 August 2022

The Taliban’s war on education for women and girls

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When Taliban leaders visited an elementary school in Kabul in October 2021, two months after retaking control of Afghanistan, several seven- or eight-year-old girls bravely stood up, one by one, to declare: “Our classes have resumed but not for our older sisters. We have been promised that our older sisters will return to class but this has not happened yet!”

Now, on the first anniversary of the Taliban’s return to power, most of Afghanistan’s 1 880 girls’ secondary schools remain closed. And when women and girls demonstrated in Kabul earlier this month, calling for their educational opportunities to be restored, Taliban forces fired shots over the protesters’ heads.

Islam’s holy book, the Qur’an, encourages both women and men to read, contemplate and pursue education. The Prophet Muhammad advocated education as a religious duty for males and females: “Seek education from the cradle to the grave,” the prophet instructed. But the Taliban’s ban on schools for girls above sixth grade has made Afghanistan the only Muslim country to prohibit girls’ secondary education.

In August 2021, the Taliban promised Afghans and the rest of the world that they would reopen all primary, secondary and tertiary schools for both boys and girls. Girls’ secondary schools were expected to reopen on 23 March to coincide with the Persian New Year. But when the girls arrived at the school gates, armed Taliban guards refused them entry.

A few days later, dozens of female students protested near the ministry of education in Kabul. “Open the schools! Justice! Justice!” they chanted, holding banners declaring that “Education is our fundamental right, not a political plan.” The Taliban, however, remain unconvinced. As a result, Afghanistan’s girls, nearly one million of whom have no access to secondary education, are the world’s most forgotten children and adolescents.

No one should remain silent in the face of this discrimination. Islam has 1.8 billion adherents, making it the world’s second-largest religious group, comprising 24% of the global population. In Indonesia, the largest Muslim-majority country, women’s university enrollment has increased from 2% in 1970 to nearly 33% today. In Saudi Arabia, half of university-age women attend university, a higher rate than in Mexico, China, Brazil and India.

According to a World Economic Forum report, 30% of the 450 million women in Muslim-majority economies are in paid work. Although women’s labour-force participation rates vary widely – 74% in Kazakhstan, 53% in Indonesia and Malaysia, 42% in the United Arab Emirates, 33% in Turkey, 26% in Pakistan and 21% in Saudi Arabia – they are increasing faster than for men in nearly all these economies. Muslim women’s combined income of just under $1-trillion would make them the world’s 16th most prosperous country.

After four decades of armed conflict and climate-induced natural disasters, Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest and least-developed countries. But the Taliban are denying the female half of the workforce the chance to help rebuild it. 

Afghanistan cannot afford to regress a quarter-century to the start of the Taliban’s first stint in power in 1996, when the group prohibited women and girls from working outside the home, attending school and university and leaving their homes unless accompanied by a mahram (husband, father, brother or son). Back then, the Taliban’s religious police meted out severe punishment, including stoning, for any infraction of their moral code.

Prior to the Taliban’s 1996 takeover, 60% of Kabul University’s teachers (and nearly half the students) were women. In addition, women constituted 70% of schoolteachers, 50% of civilian government workers (and 70% of the 130 000 civil servants in Kabul) and 40% of doctors.

Today, with Afghanistan facing economic collapse, soaring poverty and increasing risk of starvation, and unable to survive without humanitarian assistance, the Taliban are arguing that girls’ school uniforms are not Islamic. But most Afghans do not think long black tunics and pants and a white head scarf (hijab), designed in accordance with Hanafi jurisprudence, will solve the country’s many deep-rooted problems.

Nonetheless, the Taliban are threatening to close down those girls’ secondary schools that have remained open in major provinces, such as Balkh in the north, unless they change their dress codes. 

“The requirements on hijab are getting tougher day by day,” one teacher told Human Rights Watch. “They have spies to record and report … If students or teachers don’t follow their strict hijab rules, without any discussion they fire the teachers and expel the students.”

Meanwhile, some Taliban members who can afford to are sending their daughters abroad to study. Others are trying to convince the organisation’s religious leadership in Kandahar to rethink the ban and let girls return to secondary school.

In March, the foreign ministers of the G7 countries and Norway, together with the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, issued a joint statement condemning the Taliban’s refusal to reopen girls’ secondary schools. 

“We call on the Taliban urgently to reverse this decision, which will have consequences far beyond its harm to Afghan girls,” they said.

But more must be done. The international community, specifically countries in the region, and especially members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, should make Afghan women’s and girls’ rights central to their diplomatic and economic negotiations with the Taliban. Afghanistan and its people have suffered enough. Anyone who cares for the country’s future must stand up for adolescent girls’ right to an education – and women’s right to work. — © Project Syndicate

Yasmine Sherif is director of Education Cannot Wait, the UN global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises.

Gordon Brown, a former prime minister and chancellor of the exchequer of the United Kingdom, is the UN special envoy for global education, chair of Education Cannot Wait’s high-level steering group and chair of the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.